Applied Behavioral Economics Rule of Thumb #6: Tap Into the Power of Thinking Architecture Tools To Help People With Decisions

Yesterday I outlined five primary areas of behavioral architecture that we would cover during the academic semester. Two prominent ones we covered included choice architecture (e.g., how choices are presented, such as with respect to defaults and number of choice options) and information architecture (e.g., how information is presented, such as percent of salary versus pennies for every dollar you earn).

As a third area, I framed thinking architecture as the process by which an architect tries to encourage end users to use more slow, reflective thinking versus fast, intuitive thinking. A classic question that tries to illustrate this is the following:

A bat and ball together cost $1.10. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

It is tempting for many people to think that the ball costs $0.10 (based on fast, intuitive thinking), although the correct answer is $0.05.

One form of thinking architecture could have been to get users to follow a checklist:

  1. Write down your guess for the ball cost (e.g., $0.10).
  2. Add $1 to the ball cost and write that number down as the bat cost (e.g., $1.10).
  3. Add the ball and bat cost (e.g., $1.20)
  4. If the numbers don’t add up to $1.10, repeat step 1.

In my view of thinking architecture, we are essentially trying to slow down both the brain to try to get the mind to follow certain thinking pathways. Whereas neoclassic economics doesn’t account for thinking pathways, path dependency is everything in psychology and affects behavior.

Implementations of thinking architecture space have been less explored. However, the possibilities are endless. Some examples include:

  1. Addressing complexity (e.g., aviation pre-flight checklists for pilots)
  2. Helping to avoid common errors (e.g., blindspots such as forgotten opportunities as to how I might want to use money in retirement or risks of underinsuring myself when younger)
  3. Expanding the thinking (e.g., are there other potential ways of realizing goals during retirement)
  4. Weighing difficult tradeoffs (e.g., should the money be used to save a single life or implement an equipment upgrade)

Thinking architecture requires thoughtful design, and it is not always the easiest to implement. However, the human mind is an amazing wonder. Sometimes we need to really tap into its power.

References: Frederick, Shane. “Cognitive reflection and decision making.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 19, no. 4 (2005): 25-42.

Applied Behavioral Economics Rule of Thumb #5: Recognize the Possibilities and Perils of Anchors

Although I’m no expert in boats, whether you anchor from the bow or stern can have a big impact on outcomes. Do it the right way (based on the design of the boat), you can keep your boat roughly confined to an area. Do it the wrong way, and you could flood, capsize, or sink your boat. When the anchor is up (e.g., removed from use), there are possibilities with a skilled person taking the boat out to new destinations. If you are unskilled, then keeping the boat anchored and at port might make a lot more sense, unless you get someone skilled to help or provide guidance.

Shifting to the world of human behavior, one classic example of the impact of anchoring on judgments was done by Jacowitz and Kahneman, where they asked people to guess the height of the tallest redwood tree. The wrinkle was that for a first group of people, before they were asked to guess the height, they were first asked whether the height of the tallest redwood was more or less than 180 feet. A second group of people followed the same process, except that instead of the 180-foot anchor, a much taller, 1200-foot anchor was used.

Evidence shows that people’s judgments were dramatically affected by the anchor. People who were first asked about the 180-foot anchor guessed the tallest redwood to be 282 feet high. On the other hand, those who first got the 1200-foot anchor guessed the tallest redwood to be 844 feet high, about 3 times higher.

The implications of anchors in real world applications can be large. For example, in another post, my colleague, Prof. Shlomo Benartzi, is covering a case of the defaults displayed during retirement election processes and how they affect outcomes.

One area that I’d like my students to consider has to do with how they elicit information, especially during customer discovery research to determine whether a business is addressing a big problem that people have (e.g., is the business solving the right problem, a common question of startup situations). As an example, here are two ways of eliciting information from customers to evaluate a new product:

  • On a scale of 1 to 10, to what extent would you consider X?
  • On a scale of 1 to 10, to what extent would you change your current plans and consider X?

How the questions are elicited can have different consequences. For example, the second question is anchoring on a prospective customer’s current plans. This could be appropriate in some cases because in reality, behavior could be hard to change, and so anchoring on current plans might be a more accurate or at least a conservative strategy for assessing the situation.

Here are some key things to think about:

  1. Anchors can affect judgments (e.g., what do people think, what impressions are formed in their minds).
  2. Anchors can affect decisions (e.g., what do people actually do).
  3. Since they affect both judgments and decisions, it is appropriate to consider the role of anchoring on behavior throughout business processes (e.g., customer discovery, customer validation, go-to-market)
  4. The effect of anchors will likely be dependent on domain (e.g., finance), application (e.g., retirement), and context/conditions (e.g., regular or infrequent decision of customers).

So carefully consider anchors because they are everywhere. Most importantly, they can represent both possibilities and peril.

Photo: Me at home sitting on the floor next to the front door chime enclosure (shaped as an anchor).

Reference: Jacowitz, Karen E., and Daniel Kahneman. “Measures of anchoring in estimation tasks.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 21, no. 11 (1995): 1161-1166.

Applied Behavioral Economics Rule of Thumb #4: Embrace the Beauty of Reciprocity

This Sunday morning, I tried to spend time thinking about how I could help people. Could I help someone to get a job? Perhaps make a valuable introduction for someone? Give them an insight? I wrote some messages to take action. It felt good to apply energy to that type of effort.

Reciprocity is a powerful influence on behavior. The idea is that when you give to someone, they are more likely to be receptive to giving something back in the future.

In a classic study of reciprocity and measuring the percentage of tips after dinner in an upscale restaurant, the server delivered the guest check to diners using four methods:

  1. delivery of guest check normally (a “control condition”)
  2. delivery of guest check with one small piece of candy, which resulted in 3.4% higher tips
  3. delivery of guest check with two small pieces of candy, which resulted in 14.0% higher tips
  4. delivery of guest check with one small piece of candy initially with server returning to provide another piece of candy “just for them”, which resulted in 21.3% higher tips.

In other words, giving candy resulted in a reciprocal response of higher tips. The percentage went up when giving was larger. And unbundling the giving (e.g., 1+1 > 2) by making it unexpected and personalized, results in the largest results.

Moving outside of the upscale dining scenario, just imagine if things were applied in a virtuous circle context? This made me think of the Grand Challenges Project courses at Cornell where companies offer real and safe situations for students to try to solve problems that address any of 17 UN Strategic Development Goals (SDG). Students apply their skills to help. (This picture is of me holding a lapel pin that I received as a gift representing the 17 SDGs. Now I need to do my part.)

Here are some key takeaways:

  1. Incorporate a regular habit of thinking about ways to help others without expectation of anything in return.
  2. The more you give, the more likely reciprocity will occur in the future.
  3. Unexpected, personalized giving can increase the impact of giving.
  4. Apply the principles of reciprocity in a virtuous circle context, such as through projects or initiatives that address global issues.

Embrace reciprocity as a powerful tool for positive change and actively incorporate it into your actions and interactions with others for the benefit of others.

Reference: Strohmetz, David B., Bruce Rind, Reed Fisher, and Michael Lynn. “Sweetening the till: the use of candy to increase restaurant tipping 1.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 32, no. 2 (2002): 300-309.

Rule of Thumb #3: Build a Behavioral Team in Touch with Their Feelings

Our waitress pleasantly asked, “Would you like small or vacation sized cocktail?”

These were potent words that nudged my wife and I to select 16oz versus 12oz drinks just the other day. We’ve been in the Caymans on vacation, on a “Cay-vay-tion”.

More than thirty years ago, I principally thought like a traditional engineer. 12oz is 1.5 cups. 16 oz is 2 cups.

Then I magically met my wife and started a journey of getting in touch with my feelings. I started to learn about how soft skills and words matter. Sometimes its about cognition and comprehesion of an audience. Other times its about conveying feelings, connections, and story arc.

Returning to lessons from our waitress, the framing of vacation versus small sized is brilliant. One lever with respect to nudge design is being aware of the power of affect. Affect is essentially about immediate feelings that a person experiences (e.g., good or bad), such as based on a nudge. For nudge design, especially be aware of:

  1. Reference points (e.g., small versus large)
  2. Mental associations (e.g., widespread notions like happiness or other mental associations and metaphors taught in marketing and brand management, such transformation or scarcity/exclusivity)
  3. Social (e.g., framing connections to others or others as reference points)
  4. Just-in-time (e.g., proximity at the point of decision)

Our waitress hit the nail on the head with a number of these points. So long as she nudges for good, she’ll likely be a winner.

The bottom line is to go beyond where I was as a “traditional engineer”. Consider affect as part of nudge design. Furthermore, build a team with members that are acutely aware of psychology, mental associations, customer experience, and design.

Short Blurb for Behavioral Economics and Human Behavior Project Course (AEM 4000, Spring 2023 at Cornell University)

For Dyson students looking to get a short summary of what is different about my AEM 4000 section, here is short blurb:

The theme for this section is around Behavioral Economics and Human Behavior. This section is designed to introduce students to the field of behavioral economics and how it can help us understand and influence human behavior. Through a combination of lectures, discussions, and hands-on projects, students will learn about key concepts like heuristics and biases and how to apply some of the ideas to real-world situations. Students are not expected to have prior training in behavioral economics. Core training will be delivered through lectures, discussions, and reading assignments. Topics will include heuristics, biases, role of behavioral architecture, and consultative methods. Core training will also cover selected behavioral economics cases that address societal issues, which can enhance creativity and help students to take broader perspective on the application of behavioral principles. In addition to the core training, students will work on sponsored projects. While the problem statement and deliverables for sponsored projects vary by semester, each project should involve applying principles from at least one area of consumer research, behavioral research, behavioral audits, experimental testing, and/or solution design. Students will receive project support to help with skills development, knowledge development, and project navigation (e.g., through coaching, pointers to prior research insights and frameworks).

Rule of Thumb #2: Use Behavioral Lenses to Innovate and Adapt to Changes

Last night I had a good dinner and conversation with a long-time friend and colleague. We talked about the recently passed Secure Act 2.0 and potential behavioral implications and impacts on the ecosystem and players.

For those unfamiliar with Secure Act 2.0, this legislation covers finance and retirement-related considerations. Just to give some examples without covering the breadth, the Act includes items such as whether employers must provide automatic savings rate escalators in their plans, what escalator caps might be, how student debt might be addressed in the context of savings, and changes in the future age at which retirement savings of an individual must start to be withdrawn.

Each of these changes have potential behavioral implications. Let’s take just one of five behavioral angles I cover at Cornell in my applied behavioral economics courses, namely choice architecture. Defaults are an important tool within the realm of choice architecture and have shown to have big impacts on people’s choices (Carroll et al., 2009; Johnson and Goldstein, 2003; Johnson et al., 2012). Has your company done a behavioral audit on the implications to constituents of specific defaults, such as default values, structure, and outcomes? What if people don’t accept defaults? What happens then in the customer experience? Have you thought about implications to your company? Should your company make any changes?

We also have to acknowledge that consumer choices are often not made in isolation. For example, by increasing the age at which people are required to take minimum distributions from retirement, how might this affect other choices? For example, what impact might it have on how people think about claiming Social Security? Thinking architecture, such as how people construct their preferences using a mixture of fast and slow thinking processes (Payne et al., 1999), is another behavioral angle to consider.

Where does this leave us? In the case of Secure Act 2.0, one way to look at this is in terms of an exogeneous event that constituents have to react to (e.g., employers, advisors, platforms, systems providers, investment managers). However, there will also be those that look at this as an opportunity. There will be some players that will be way more agile than others and able to capitalize on both important behavioral implications and operational tactics.

But this discussion isn’t limited to Secure Act 2.0…

Whether facing an exogeneous event or proactively working an important business problem, here are three strategies informed by behavioral economics that companies and individuals can use:

  • To avoid blindspots with group decision making, consider setting up a Red Team to approach problem and think way outside of the box (Cass Sunstein discusses Red Teaming in his book, Wiser). My twist would be that you might consider setting up a Behavioral Red Team or a Red Team with behavioral economics advisor embedded within.
  • Anchoring is a powerful force that inhibits change. Use a whiteboard exercise to think about ideal approaches to solving a problem. Maybe it can be part of a Spring-cleaning or offsite event for your company.
  • Use behavioral lenses to examine the problem. A choice architecture lens, such as the way defaults are used, is one such lens. But there are other lenses out there, such as the way information is framed. (See Shu et al. for an example of reframing savings decision using pennies and potentially heterogenous treatment effects on people with different income levels).


  • Carroll, Gabriel D., James J. Choi, David Laibson, Brigitte C. Madrian, and Andrew Metrick. “Optimal defaults and active decisions.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 124, no. 4 (2009): 1639-1674.
  • Johnson, Eric J., and Daniel Goldstein. “Do defaults save lives?.” Science 302, no. 5649 (2003): 1338-1339.
  • Johnson, Eric J., Suzanne B. Shu, Benedict GC Dellaert, Craig Fox, Daniel G. Goldstein, Gerald Häubl, Richard P. Larrick et al. “Beyond nudges: Tools of a choice architecture.” Marketing Letters 23, no. 2 (2012): 487-504.
  • Payne, John W., James R. Bettman, David A. Schkade, Norbert Schwarz, and Robin Gregory. “Measuring constructed preferences: Towards a building code.” In Elicitation of Preferences, pp. 243-275. Springer, Dordrecht, 1999.
  • Shu, Stephen, Hal Hershfield, Richard Mason, and Shlomo Benartzi. “Reducing Savings Gaps Through Pennies Versus Percent Framing.” (Working Paper 2022).
  • Sunstein, Cass R., and Reid Hastie. Wiser: Getting beyond groupthink to make groups smarter. Harvard Business Press, 2015.

Rule of Thumb #1: Adopt a Portfolio Approach When Implementing Behavioral Science Initiatives

While I will address return on investment (ROI) considerations in a future post, probably one of the first rules of thumb I have is to use some degree of portfolio thinking and management processes for implementing behavioral science initiatives.

Research indicates that seemingly promising behavioral interventions sometimes do not work, and it can be hard to predict what will actually work (Milkman et al., 2021). Additionally, some studies indicate that there can be strong wisdom-of-crowds versus individual forecasting performance effects, such as average forecasts outperforming 96% of individual forecasts (DellaVigna and Pope, 2018).

It can be difficult to predict which projects will be successful. There are risk-return tradeoffs and innovating in this space requires process and discipline (which could also result in undesirable outcomes, such as if managers are overly loss averse and fail to innovate).

So based on these premises, some strategies for companies looking to implement behavioral science include:

  1. Look for quick wins opportunistically (e.g., when getting started), while also being realistic.
  2. Recognize that it can be hard to predict results ex-ante.
  3. Develop behavioral intervention generation, vetting, and project portfolio management processes. (This last point is very loaded. I will likely have future posts on different dimensions of just this point. However, one example of portfolio management can be picking several lower-risk projects along with a higher-risk project that could pay off to a much greater extent, e.g., financial or social good).

In summary, to effectively implement behavioral science initiatives, it is important for companies to recognize the unpredictable nature of these interventions and adopt a portfolio approach that includes a process for generating, vetting, and managing projects in order to maximize return on investment and/or other outcome goals of the organization.


  • Milkman, Katherine L., Dena Gromet, Hung Ho, Joseph S. Kay, Timothy W. Lee, Pepi Pandiloski, Yeji Park et al. “Megastudies improve the impact of applied behavioural science.” Nature 600, no. 7889 (2021): 478-483.
  • DellaVigna, Stefano, and Devin Pope. “Predicting experimental results: who knows what?.” Journal of Political Economy 126, no. 6 (2018): 2410-2456.

Applied Behavioral Economics Series 2023

In 2023, I’m going to experiment with series of short posts and mixed media that will try to appeal to those that are thinking of starting behavioral economics initiatives or trying to take things to the next level. I have a unique background to bring this type of content as I have worked in the commercial world for more than 30 years while also having an academic research and teaching background in behavioral economics. I will try to leverage an intersection between what I implement as a behavioral economics advisor in the commercial world and what I teach experientially in the classroom.

Current LinkedIn connections and prior students may also feel free to join an Applied Behavioral Economics slack channel. We can use to this as a way to share ideas, post questions, or potentially arrange informal meetups. Please send me an email at or if your organization is on an approved domain (e.g., you should be able to join using the following link: (link valid for 30 days).